NEW DELHI - India’s new nationalist government promised on Monday to pursue a more muscular foreign policy and “engage energetically” with China as Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Beijing’s top diplomat.
In a keynote speech before parliament that was written by Modi, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said India wanted peaceful and friendly relations with all countries but would not “shy away” from confrontation when necessary.
He also said that Modi’s newly-elected government was “committed to building a strong, self-reliant and self-confident India” that wanted to take its “rightful place in the comity of nations”.
Modi, whose right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ousted the ruling Congress party last month after a landslide election victory, has long argued that India has been punching below its weight on the world stage and has lost ground to its nuclear-armed rival and neighbour China.
After promising to shore up relations with other South Asian countries which have forged closer ties to Beijing during the last decade of Congress rule, Mukherjee singled out China for mention in his speech.
“My government will engage energetically with other neighbours in our region, including China, with whom we will work to further develop our Strategic and Cooperative Partnership,” he said.
The speech came before Modi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held brief talks in New Delhi, officially billed as a “courtesy call”.
Although there was no immediate word on the outcome of the talks, footage broadcast on Indian television showed the two men smiling and shaking hands.
Wang had met on Sunday his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj, talks described by New Delhi as a “productive and substantive” step towards stronger relations between the neighbours, whose ties have long been frosty over a border dispute.
“In our view, this is a productive beginning between the new government of India and the Chinese government,” foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said. Speaking in Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said that the Communist government “welcomes, supports and gives blessings to India’s development”.
“China is ready to develop a closer and more-comprehensive development partnership with India,” Hua Chunying told reporters on Monday. Modi invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit India later this year, extending an olive branch to one of New Delhi’s traditional rivals.
Despite his reputation as a hardline nationalist, Modi has spoken of his admiration for China’s economic growth in the last decade, and he made several trips to Beijing in his previous post as chief minister of Gujarat state.
Meanwhile, India’s new government pledged Monday to fix the flagging economy and provide water, power and toilets to every home as it laid out its agenda following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide election victory.
In an address to both houses of parliament, President Pranab Mukherjee said India’s economy faced “extremely difficult” times and that inflation was “unacceptably” high, as he outlined the government’s legislative priorities.
The speech, drawn up by Modi’s new cabinet, included ambitious plans to overhaul India’s dilapidated roads and build a high-speed train network and more airports.
The speech also included goals contained in the election manifesto of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including creating 100 new cities to help millions flocking from rural areas every year searching for work.
“The country is passing through an extremely difficult phase on the economic front,” Mukherjee told lawmakers. “Putting the economy back on track is paramount for my government.
“We will work together to usher our economy into a high growth path, rein in inflation, reignite the investment cycle, accelerate job creation and restore the confidence of the domestic as well as international community.”
India’s economy has been growing at under five percent for the past two years, way below the level needed to lift millions of people out of poverty, while inflation is running close to nine percent.
Modi’s right-wing BJP, which thrashed the left-leaning Congress party in marathon polls in April and May, made reviving the economy the main plank of its campaign as well as promising to clean up government.
The government promised every family home would have basic amenities by the year 2022, an ambitious goal in a country where over 600 million people are forced to defecate in the open, according to the World Bank, and 300 million live without electricity.
Amid outrage over a wave of sexual attacks of women, the government pledged a “zero-tolerance” approach and to strengthen the overloaded criminal justice system regarded as inefficient and inept.
“In the recent past, the country has witnessed some gruesome incidents of violence against women. The government will have a policy of zero tolerance for violence against women,” the president said.
Focused on economic revival, the government would encourage foreign investment, speed up approvals for business projects and create manufacturing and tourism jobs, he added.
And the administration would make “every effort” to fulfil its pre-election promise of a new general sales tax, Mukherjee said, and make India’s tax regime less “adversarial.”
The opposition Congress condemned the agenda as “rhetoric”, saying Modi failed to explain how he would fulfil his promises.
“Ultimately it (the agenda) is highly rhetorical, high in tone but low in content,” senior Congress leader Veerappa Moily told CNN-IBN news channel.
But shares on the Bombay Stock Exchange, which have climbed over 20 percent since Modi was declared the BJP’s candidate last September, rose by almost one percent to 25,580.21 points after Modi’s reform agenda was announced.
The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) said it was “delighted” with the government’s commitment to work for high economic growth.
The president acknowledged public anger over corruption that tarnished the previous Congress government, promising a “predictable, transparent and fair” administration as well as a crackdown on illegal money leaving the country.
The president also pledged India would “engage energetically” with rival giant China, with Japan, and in areas including trade, investment and technology with the United States.
The promise comes as Washington and New Delhi look to rebuild strained ties with Modi expected to travel to the United States later this year to meet President Barack Obama.
The election of the Hindu nationalist Modi posed a headache for Washington which refused him a visa in 2005 when he was Gujarat state chief minister.
The refusal stemmed from claims he turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots in the western state three years earlier that killed some 1,000 people. Modi has insisted he ended the bloodshed as swiftly as possible.